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Pokemon Fever Turns Into a Headache at Burger King

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Burger King Corp. may have a whopper of a public relations problem on its hands over its $22-million Pokemon promotion, one of the largest in the history of the fast-food industry.

Dozens of Southland Burger Kings--and scores across the country--ran out of Pokemon toys tied to the Warner Bros. hit movie on Thursday, causing angry parents and crying children to storm out of its restaurants.

“I think they should have planned ahead,” said an annoyed Melanie Nelson, a 26-year-old Long Beach homemaker, who brought her son, Dylan, to a Costa Mesa Burger King after seeing the movie on his ninth birthday Thursday.

Miami-based Burger King, the nation’s second-largest burger chain with 8,000 locations, launched the two-month campaign Monday, hoping to make major inroads against industry leader McDonald’s Corp.

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“Pokemon: The First Movie,” opened in theaters Wednesday and raked in $10.6 million at 2,900 U.S. screens. It was the highest-grossing Wednesday premiere of any film to open in November in the history of Hollywood, according to Warner Bros. Many parents have been bringing their children to Burger King immediately after seeing the movie.

Pokemon passed the billion-dollar mark as a global entertainment brand in the last year. The movie and the cartoon show, which appears 11 times a week on the WB network, centers on the adventures of Ash Ketchum and two fellow Pokemon trainers, Misty and Brock. The series and movie are based on a popular Nintendo game that involves capturing and training 150 unique Pokemon characters. The term “Pokemon” is a fusion of the words “pocket” and “monster.”

The Pokemon craze became a full-fledged phenomenon this spring, primarily with young boys between the ages of 6 and 12, thanks to a series of collectible trading cards licensed by Nintendo.

The chain’s promotion involves giving away one of 57 different toys--eight per week--during the campaign. Children receive a toy inside a “Pokeball” when they order a Kids Meal or Big Kids Meal, which range from $1.99 to $3.19. Included is one of 151 trading cards made especially for the Burger King campaign.

At most Southland Burger Kings, the first week’s supply was exhausted in half that time.

“In the short run, this clearly hurts Burger King,” said Hal Seiling, a Carlsbad restaurant consultant, noting that it is not uncommon for there to be shortages when a fast-food promotion hits fever pitch. “The chains can’t afford to have an unlimited number [of toys] on hand so they just do the best they can and kind of regroup after a disaster.”

Several exasperated Burger King managers interviewed Thursday said they weren’t sure when more toys would arrive. “There is not a Burger King in town with any left,” said a manager in Irvine.

Burger King spokeswoman Kim Miller said deliveries of the Pokemon toys are scheduled “on a 24-hour basis” and that the chain “is examining every option” to try to eliminate the shortages, which she insisted are only in certain spots and not widespread.

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“We are working around the clock to move toys. We have toys making their way by planes, trains and automobiles as well as ships,” Miller said. “It’s almost like monitoring Santa’s progress. We are getting hourly reports where they are.”

Some of the shortages can be attributed to bulk buying of meals by Pokemon collectors, Miller said. One customer was denied service at a Burger King in Chicago when he tried to purchase 500 meals.

“We have strongly recommended to restaurants that they limit the number of meals to 10 or less so that we can be fair to all of our customers,” Miller said. “We have seen some hoarding, particularly by collectors and this promotion is really for the kids.”

Burger King’s Pokemon toys merchandise began appearing on Internet auction sites on Sunday, a day before they hit the restaurants, as people anticipating a crush of demand tried to turn the plastic toys into a quick profit. A survey of major online auction sites late Thursday found dozens of Pokemon figures for sale, many of them claiming to be unopened and in mint condition. But the vast majority had not attracted bids. The most popular figure was Pikachu, which had attracted a $25 bid.

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Nelson is among those who have young children afflicted with Pokemon fever. She was so disappointed Thursday that she left the Costa Mesa restaurant without ordering any food, rushing to another Burger King down the street where she heard toys were still available.

“They have to know that everyone wants Pokemon,” she said as she got into her car. “They should have totally planned.”

Elizabeth Lewis, 35, was among the last to get toys at the same Burger King earlier in the day but nevertheless left the restaurant looking frazzled.

“It was crazy in there,” the Costa Mesa resident said. “It’s the craziest I’ve ever seen. They are even out of straws and the wastepaper baskets are overflowing. But, we got our toys.”

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On Wednesday, a Burger King on Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena ran out of Pokemon toys just before the dinner hour when traffic in the drive-through lane was backed up about a block. Most of the cars were vans and sport-utility vehicles packed with kids.

The disappointment was palpable when a handwritten sign was posted on the door. It read, “Sorry, we’re temporarily out of Pokemon.”

Toy shortages have hit the fast-food industry before. In June, Burger King was forced to pull all advertising for its popular Teletubbies promotion because of shortages.

McDonald’s has experienced shortages with its Teenie Beanie Babies toys, both in 1997 and this year. The Illinois-based burger giant will launch a $30-million promotion later this month tied to the Disney film “Toy Story 2.”

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Times staff writer Jonathan Gaw contributed to this report.

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ARRESTED OVER POKEMON

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Two eight-graders in Rancho Palos Verdes admittied to stealing classmates cards.. B1.


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